Friday, 23 September 2016

Mother Russia Bleeds - Review

Developer: Le Cartel
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, PS4 

It’s surprising that we’ve not seen a resurgence in side-scrolling beat ‘em ups in recent years. With the growth of independent game development, and plenty of developers raised on a heady diet of 16-bit classics, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen the genre return sooner in some form or another.

Mother Russia Bleeds attempts to set that record straight. Much like Charlie Murder, it attempts to reinvigorate and update the gameplay template laid down by the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage in the early ‘90s.

When it comes to emulating that style, Mother Russia Bleeds is a roaring success. Enemies creep in from either side of the screen, circling your character, as you manoeuvre around and pick out your first target. Despite their differences, classic beat ‘em ups share a lot in common with fighting games; both genres fundamentally are about controlling space in the optimum manner possible. Mother Russia Bleeds understands this perfectly.

Even the move sets feel similar. You choose from a roster of four different characters, each with their own individual stats to separate them out slightly. Sergei is the baseline character for instance, whilst Ivan is the slow, lumbering heavyweight. Attacks meanwhile, are mapped to two buttons, along with a grab that can lead to various follow ups.

Drugs are the final strategic twist in the game’s mini-arsenal of options. Each “charge” of Nekro your character possesses can be used to heal or to supercharge your attacks and speed for a short while. It adds a solid decision-making wrinkle to a gameplay loop that is incredibly basic at first glance. Sometimes, it’s not always clear whether burning one of your resources on a heal will gain you more life than simply going on the offensive. Likewise, your stock of Nekro can only be replenished by sucking it up from the bad guys you knock out, resulting in interesting back and forth lulls mid-fight, as you create some space to stock up on resources.

Drug-taking also justifies the bright, acid-fried colour scheme that Mother Russia Bleeds utilizes throughout its eight levels. Again, developers Le Cartel don’t hide their inspirations, the retro-inspired pixel art and neon colours owe a lot to Hotline Miami.

Even the violence and subject matter seems drawn primarily from Dennaton’s game, even if it isn’t handled with as much nuance or subversive wit. Mother Russia Bleeds takes place in mid-80s Russia, with the cast of playable characters involved in some form of drugs trial, resulting in increased violent behaviour and an addiction to Nekro. The game runs headlong with its setting and every level is gorgeous to look at. gorgeous as a filth-ridden sewer covered in entrails can be.

The game revels in its brutality with gleeful abandon. Characters mash into snotty pulp with each successive punch to the face whilst pipe blows to the head result in gouts of blood splashing across the floor. Mother Russia Bleeds is viciously excessive, and it damn well knows it, dunking the player head first into the lurid atmosphere that each level contains. The only problem with this is when the game takes the time to slow down and attempt to question its obsession with violence.

Hotline Miami did something similar, and indeed, brilliantly. This game however, lacks the intelligence to do the same. The clunky dialogue that bookends each chapter comes off as an attempt to have its cake and eat it. Mother Russia Bleeds is fun to play, and indeed its disgusting aesthetic is in part what makes it entertaining, but to say that it has anything particularly interesting to say about video game violence is perhaps giving it too much credit.

Mother Russia Bleeds does attempt to improve on some aspects of its genre however, and it’s when it does that it’s at its best. Weapons include the typical gamut of pipes, swords and batons but it’s the addition of guns that could have potentially unbalanced the combat system. Fortunately, they’re handled almost perfectly, with gun wielding enemies being a huge threat that must be prioritised (two or three shots will end your character) but come with the reward of nabbing their weapon.

Likewise, bosses show a sharp degree of forward thinking on Le Cartel’s part, with each possessing a gimmick that makes each of them unique, whilst expanding the game’s simple combat system. One early boss can’t be hit without being counter-attacked, so you instead have to throw other enemies at her so she falls into a huge grinder. Another involves battering away at a huge flame-throwing tank whilst also swatting away other enemies. They emphasize the strengths of the combat system rather than throwing it out of the window, and, despite the odd slip up (the final boss is sadly a bit of a damp squib) they’re one of the best aspects of the game and one of the few times Mother Russia Bleeds elevates the games it’s inspired by rather than simply slavishly aping them.

There are a few times it takes a step back from previous beat ‘em ups, however. For all its focus on the visuals and overall style, its soundtrack is oddly forgettable, lacking the sublime beats of, say, Streets of Rage 2. Likewise, later levels stack wave after wave of enemies with less thought and reason into how the fights are going to play out. They’re still satisfying, but the overall pacing and moment to moment scraps aren’t as entertaining or carefully orchestrated in the campaign’s second half.

It would have been nice if the characters had been given a bit more diversity, too. Despite some basic stat differences (some hit harder, some move faster) there’s no special moves or unique attacks to separate one character from another. In fact, I have a hard time wondering why you’d ever pick one of the nimble characters like Natasha, over a slow lumbering juggernaut like Ivan. Damage output and range just seem much more potent than a higher jump and faster movement, especially in single player.

The addition of multiplayer and some bonus drugs to unlock definitely pad out Mother Russia Bleeds’ svelte lifespan. Along with the arena challenges and the ability to have a good knock about with your friends, there’s enough here to keep fans entertained.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mother Russia Bleeds goes out of its way to flatter. It doesn’t necessarily improve upon the games that it attempts to emulate, and its vague attempts at self-reflexive commentary on absurd levels of violence comes across as dumb rather than poignant. It’s still a tightly designed game nevertheless, even if it never quite emerges from the shadow of those 16-bit classics.


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